Magic! What an amazing word and there is so much meaning in those five simple letters. There is the “magic” in a child’s eyes when they spy the gifts under the tree at Christmas. There is the “magic” that a stage magician conjures up by diverting us and seemingly makes impossible things happen. There is the scary “magic” that real witches perform or at least claim to perform by casting spells and make potions and charms. Then there is the fictional “magic”, the magic of The Lord of the Rings, Bewitched, The Wizard of Oz, The Chronicles of Narnia and the Harry Potter series, this is the magic I’m going to focus on today. This is my own history of magic.
I guess my first exposure to fictional magic would have been the television show Bewitched starring Elizabeth Montgomery and Dick York as well as the amazing Agnes Morehead. The premise of the series was that a mortal Darin Stevens marries a witch a fact that he is unaware of until after the marriage takes place. When he finds out he forbids her to use her powers in the house and of course this is impossible especially with his wife’s family of witches and warlocks always at hand. This show was cute and funny and stayed on the air for several years even after having the original Darin replaced by another actor.
The next bit of magic would have been when I was introduced to the classic film The Wizard of Oz. The Wizard of Oz is based on the children’s book written by L Frank Baum and published on March 17, 1900. It quick became a childhood classic and Baum would go on to write fourteen more Oz books. These could have made a great movie series but for some reason MGM, the studio that produced the original film, made the adventures of Dorothy trying to find her way home. A dream, so no future films could be done.
There seems to be certain films everyone is afraid to touch because they are perfect the way they are. The Sound of Music, Funny Girl, Gone with the Wind, and The Wizard of Oz are four of those. People have tried to do sequels to Oz, but they all pale in comparison the original movie which was almost flowless in its making.
The Wizard of Oz in the 60s became a yearly treat that families would gather around their television sets to watch around the Easter holiday. My family was no exception and I remember being little and hiding behind my father whenever The Wicked Witch of The West would make her appearance. There wasn’t a lot of magic actually done in The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy gest to Oz by tornado. She walks to The Emerald City and meets non-human creatures and talking animals but the only magic that is actually performed is Glinda magically having the Ruby Slippers appear on Dorothy’s feet, The Wicked Witch conjuring the poppy field and Glinda creating the snow that destroys the poppies effects. Of course, Glinda makes her appearances in a magic bubble and The Wicked Witch rides a broom stick but that’s about it. To compare the two there was more magic in a half hour of Bewitched than there was in the full-length movie of The Wizard of Oz.
But Oz was magical in an of itself. A talking Scarecrow, Tinman and Lion as well as talking apple trees and colors that were brighter and more beautiful than in our own gray world made this movie a delight for our senses. And at the end of the 1930s when America was just coming out of the depression but was on the brink of another world war, that kind of beauty and unreality was much needed by children and adults.
My next stop in my magical tour must be Neverland. I was introduced to Peter Pan fairly young. My mother was a big fan of musicals and when Peter Pan starring Mary Martin was aired on television in the early 60s it was a family event.
Peter Pan began as a nonmusical stage play by JM Barrie. Mr. Barrie based his play on his relationship with three young boys and the games they would play. Peter Pan opened in 1904 and did very well. Mr. Barrie was already a celebrated playwright, but Peter Pan elevated him to an immortal status and is the only thing still remembered today. Peter became so famous that Barrie, told everyone to watch Kensington Gardens for a surprise on a certain date and when London woke up that morning there was the magnificent statue of Peter in the gardens.
It was in 1911 that Barrie published the novel that told the story of his play for all the world. He titled the novel Peter Pan and Wendy, and it is still enjoyed by people today.
Peter Pan is a difficult role, and it was decided early on that a child could not handle the work in a full length play so a woman has been traditionally cast as Peter. In recent times in cartoons and films as well as some stage production this has changed but more often than not Peter is still played by a woman.
Peter Pan has very little magic. In fact, the only magic we see is Peter teaching the children to fly. We know there are fairies as Tinker Bell is a main character in the play and we know that is by thinking good thoughts and the use of fairy dust that we can learn to fly. Bu that is the extent of the observable magic in the play.
Let’s talk about flying. When Barrie first opened his play in 1904 Peter had only one requirement to fly. You had to think good thoughts. Many children left the theater with that idea in their heads and soon found themselves jumping off roofs and out of windows thinking they would fly. This of course caused some injuries but as far as I know no life was lost. On learning this Barrie modified his play to add fairy dust to the flying equation and the attempts ceased. I believed a similar situation occurred in 1964 when Disney released Mary Poppins and Mary seemed to fly by umbrella to the front door of the Bank’s home. I know my friends and I spent some time jumping from steps with an umbrella in hand, but we never got air born.
Neverland is a magic place. It is inhabited by fairies, and mermaids. We know from the play that it is Spring, summer, Winter and Fall all at the same time on different parts of the island. Peter describes it as crammed with hardly any room between one adventure and another. And of course, if you go there as a child, you never grow up. There is magic in the very soil of Neverland.
I was transported as a child to Neverland in my dreams. Not long after seeing the Mary Martin TV special I brought to see the Disney version of the classic story. The problem with Disney and Miss Martin’s work is that they watered the story down quite a lot. They took out the scary stuff and so missed some of the best parts. In time I grew to love the book that Barrie wrote mush more than the film versions. To this day no one has written Peter the way Barrie did. I would love to see new stage production that left it all intact.
The fantasy that taught me how to think would begin and end with The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. The Phantom Tollbooth is about a bored little boy whose name is Milo. Milo has no interest in anything until one day a mysterious box appears in his room. The box contains a life size toy toll booth which Milo proceeds to put together. When it’s completed Milo gets into his toy electric car and drives thru into The Land Beyond.
Milo’s adventures in the Lands Beyond are filled with strange creatures that are magical in some ways but they only way to deal with them is to think. There is the land of the doldrums where you get very sleepy, and can get yourself killed if you don’t wake up and begin to think your way out by reciting poetry and equations as well as using your imagination. Milo is saved from The Doldrums by Tok a watchdog. This is a large dog that has a clock built into his side and he guards time he especially is after those who waste time.
Milo is told the story of the Lands Beyond and knows that there are problems there that could be solved if the Princesses Rhyme and Reason could be rescued from the castle in the clouds which must be gotten to through by way of The Mountains of Ignorance. This stuff is great. He must first get permission to save them from the warring kings of Dictionopolis and Digitopolis the kingdoms or Words and Numbers. The kings hate each other even though they are brothers because they each believe that their own kingdom is better than the other. In other words, words are better than numbers and numbers are better than words.
Milo has many adventures in The Lands Beyond and meets many strange creatures including a Spelling Bee and a Humbug but he eventually reaches the princesses and rescues them through the power of thinking. When he returns home, he has a new lease on life and is no longer bored as there is always something new to learn. This is a lesson many adults could use right now.
As I grew up so did my magic stories. First there was my comic book heroes. Doctor Strange from Marvel Comics and Doctor Fate from DC. Doctor Fate came first and made his first appearance in the early 1940s in the pages of More Fun Comics. He is Kent Nelson who, as a boy, finds The Helmet of Nabu an ancient Egyptian wizard, when he puts the helmet on, he becomes Doctor fate with all kinds of magic abilities. Doctor Fate would fade away with the rest of the comic book heroes in the early 1950s as discussed in earlier blogs. He would return the 1960s in the pages on The Justice League of America when DC Comics rebirths The Justice Society in the pages of that magazine. He would eventually get his own title for a short while but for the most part remain a supporting character in the comic book universe. With the popularity of the television series Stargirl and the reemergence of The Justice Society Doctor Fate may soon make a return.
Doctor Strange made his first appearance in Strange Tales and remains a favorite character of mine to this day. Steven Strange is a surgeon, skilled and vain about those skills. He cares only for money and little for the actual people he treats. An accident renders his hands useless and in seeking a cure he becomes a penniless derelict. His search continues, however, and he makes it to Tibet where he hears of a man known as The Ancient One who may be able to help him. He seeks The Ancient One out and finds him only discover that it is sorcery that the Ancient One believes can cure Strange. Strange, being a man of science, rejects this and decides to leave only to discover that the Ancient One’s disciple Murdo is going to kill The Ancient One. Strange attempts to warn the old man only to be stopped by a spell put on him by Murdo. The Ancient One saves both Himself and Strange and Strange becomes the new disciple. After years of training Doctor Strange become The Master of the Mystic Arts and a main player in the Marvel Comics and Cinematic Universe.
My journey in fictional magic continued. The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Magic Kingdom of Landover, The Belgariad and The Harry Potter books all added to my magical fun and adventure.
Why does magic entice all of us so much? Why does the idea of conjuring strike our imaginations so hard? I think the answer lies in what CS Lewis once said. Lewis, the author of the Narnia books said “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.” And we were made for another world. When God created us in The Garden of Eden, he created us in a perfect world and was grooming us to be like him. He wasn’t looking for slaves or he wouldn’t have given us the ability to choose. But the ability to choose comes with consequences. Adam and Eve were told they could do whatever they wanted except to eat from the fruit of one tree. They couldn’t accept that one rule and so were banished from a perfect world into this one. And here we remain as Lewis calls us, the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve.
But God left in us a desire for our true home. He gave us glimpses of that home in our imaginations and in the many books of fantasy that have been written. Whether you are a fan of The Shire or Shangri La, or Neverland or Oz all of those places are glimpses of Eden our true home and the place we all long for.
The thing is we have another act of God where in we can begin to get Eden back. God sent his son Jesus to pay for the sins of Adam and all the rest of us. Jesus’ death on the cross and his ultimate resurrection pave the way to the real place of magic known as Eden or Heaven. To return to that place God asks only one thing from us and that is to believe that Jesus died and was resurrected for us. That’s it. This is what Tolkien called “the one true myth.” No great acts of heroism or penance are required just belief that in the work God has done. Will our lives change after that? Yes, they will but the change will come not as an act of payment but as an act of gratitude that comes from believing in this amazing gift. It would be the same way you would act toward the person who showed up at your door with the keys to a brand-new house or a car. Just handed those keys to you and said enjoy it. We would go out of our way to show our gratitude. This is why our lives change when we understand what God has done for us.
I will continue to enjoy the fantasy worlds that are so much a part of my life. These worlds have added color and excitement and mystery to this existence, but they have also been a pointer. Little by little they pointed me back to Eden and to God.